Ben Stein's Diary

The Age of Fraud

By From the February 2009 issue

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Sunday

So here I am in Rancho Mirage reading about Bernie Madoff and Marc Dreier and Governor Blagojevich and I am thinking:

Now is the age of fraud.

On one day there is the governor of Illinois alleged to have defrauded the citizens and the law by offering to sell political appointments.

A few days later there is a major power on Wall Street apparently admitting that his family investment business, which had taken in $17 billion from friends and charities and university endowments, was a total Ponzi scheme and there was no money left. The bogus financier had used some of the money to finance a lifestyle with immensely expensive homes and a yacht.

Then the next day there’s a story about a major Manhattan lawyer who had a similarly opulent lifestyle, maintaining a yacht with a permanent crew of 10 and lavish parties for beautiful young people.

Then of course there was the massive nationwide fraud of sub-prime mortgages. And little by little we see that those miraculous money-makers called hedge funds were often frauds that took investor money to keep the hedge fund manager living like a maharajah.

Why should we be surprised? This is an age that has energetically suppressed religious belief. You get laughed out of court if you try to put up an image of the Ten Commandments--the origin of most laws--anywhere near a courthouse. You get treated as if you were an imbecile fascist if you even dare to ask--just ask--how Darwinism and random chance could have produced gravity or thermodynamics. Could there have been a God who made these laws happen? You are not allowed to ask.

But in an age that explicitly mocks faith in a higher power, people still have to believe in something. For many, that something is money, luxurious living, opulent display on a stupefying scale.

If there is no God, then man sometimes thinks he is god, and sometimes tries to live like a god.

It’s really amazing that in the age of unbelief, as a smart man called it, there isn’t even more fraud. After all, with no God, there’s no one to ever call you to account, and no accounting at all if you can get away with it.

So this is what we are left with: the age of unbelief, the age of material things, the age of fraud. Not a pretty picture for the New Year. I mean, think about it. If there is no God, why bother to tell the truth? Why not steal? If we are just specks of dust hit by lightning, if we have no spark of God in us, why not just take whatever we can and devil take the hindmost? I mean, we are fools not to do that if there is no right or wrong. So, I can sort of see where Bernie Madoff and Marc Dreier and Governor Blagojevich and many others are coming from. By that same evil standard, I can see where Hitler was coming from and where Stalin and Mao Tse-tung and Castro got their ideas.

As I was writing about this, I corresponded with a close relative who said she had heard Madoff was a religious man. I answered, “Perhaps observant but certainly not religious.” How could he be a religious man and loot charities? How could he be a religious man and steal from his friends?

(By the way, long ago I read a tale about my old nemesis, Michael Robert Milken. Apparently he was going to wildly overcharge a close friend and associate for some transaction. Milken’s colleague said to him, “But Mike, he’s one of our oldest friends.” To which Milken replied, “If we can’t steal from our friends, who can we steal from?” I didn’t personally hear this. I just read about it.)

There is a lot of confusion in all faiths between observance and religion. No man need ever go to a synagogue or church to be religious or godly. No amount of memorizing the Bible or Hebrew prayers will make a man godly if his life is basically about larceny.

Anyway, it’s all very discouraging.

However, although I have been greatly impoverished relatively speaking this year, I am still living in a cozy little bubble of faith in the Lord God Jehovah, Lord of Hosts and God of the High Places. It is sort of like my swimming pool. Very warm even when the outside air is cold.

I wake up and worry about money, worry about how old I have gotten (64) and think about how much longer I might have, and I feel scared.

So, I pray. Thanks to God for my beautiful, saintly wifey, Alex. For my dogs, Brigid and Cleo and Mopsy. For my son, Tommy, and his beautiful fiancée, Kitty.

For my fingers, toes, arms, legs, kidneys. I am grateful all of the time.

If I stop feeling grateful, I go to sleep or eat something until I do feel grateful.

As I think I have said, quoting Joseph Heller, I have something that Bernie Madoff and Marc Dreier could never imagine having: enough. I am so happy with what God has allowed me to have I can hardly describe it or speak. Just so happy I had my fabulous Mom and Pop, my great sister, grew up in America, never had to be in terrible battles in World War I or II or in a gas chamber. I am sooo grateful.

I read last night about Dreier’s yacht and Madoff’s yacht and I thought, I hope those men, who will probably die in prison, were as happy with their yachts as I am lying in bed looking into my Brigid’s eyes.

Thursday

Tonight I am in Indianapolis giving a speech. I gave my speech at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, a fantastically good museum, and then went back to my hotel. It was snowing but I wanted Starbucks tea, so I bundled up and went off into the snow. Before I had gone two blocks, the streets were deserted. It was 10:30 at night. An African American man approached me, reeking of booze. “Oh,” he said, “you’re Ben Stein. You’re my hero. I love you. You’re the smartest man on the planet.” And on and on.

I said I wasn’t smart but just played a smart guy on TV. He said, “No, you are the smartest guy in the world.”

Then, with many apologies, he said he wanted to ask me a favor. His wife had just gone into birth labor. He needed to get to her side BUT he had locked his keys in his car. The police would not help. He needed $35 to call a locksmith to get into his car. (The exact sum of 35 dollars was what told me in flashing neon that it was a scam, by the way.) He really, really, really hated to ask, but what could he do.…

I gave him 40 dollars, wished him well, and went on my way. That man was a fantastic actor. He really acted out pain, embarrassment, pride, exasperation. Like Olivier. Or, I thought, like a master politician. Just tell any flattering lie, then get the money--or the votes--and run. Promise change. Promise hope. Promise lower taxes. Promise the moon. But get the vote. Close the deal. What a politician that man would make.

Saturday

Now, the year is drawing to a close. It has really been a terrible year. I lost immensely more than I could afford in the stock market. Way, way, way more. My retirement will probably never happen.

I learned how many mistakes I could make about investing. Too many. I learned just how stupid I am.

I learned how incompetent a treasury secretary could be. Letting Lehman fail was by far the single worst financial error of the last 200 years. Really beyond imagining. That idiocy by Paulson and Bernanke will be costing us for decades, maybe centuries. Because of the cataclysm that decision caused, we now have a socialist American banking system. We are very close to having a socialized auto sector. It all could have been avoided by a Lehman bailout but Paulson and Bernanke were too stupid to do the right thing. Now we are all paying for it and will be for a long time.

I really never thought I would see socialist America under a GOP president. But once Paulson and Bernanke pressed the “history erase” button, we were doomed. All of the good decisions since the Reconstruction Finance Corporation simply tossed out the window. My pal John Coyne says we as a nation have simply forgotten good sense. He’s right.

To think of the hundreds of billions looted by excess compensation on Wall Street, and now they leave us with this disaster. To think of these guys looting the savers of the nation, looting the men and women who fight in Afghanistan, looting the men who lie in hospital beds at Walter Reed… and they get away with it and we have to pick up the tab.

Something awful has happened and now we have socialized finance. Too many Bernie Madoffs. Not enough human decency.

As my sister says, “Your basic human is not such a hot item.”

Except at Walter Reed. One day a few weeks ago I met a wounded medic named Isaac Jensen. He had been horribly maimed by a bomb in a refrigerator at a home where terrorists had lurked. Despite his wounds, he had saved the lives of two of his squad mates even more gravely wounded. “That’s what I do,” he said, “that’s what we all do. Put someone else first.” He lay in a narrow bed. His incredibly beautiful wife was with him. Her staggeringly beautiful sister and his father were there, too. I would swear they glowed. As my pal Phil said when I sent his photo, they make the women of Beverly Hills look like chunks of stone. These men and women are our salvation, God willing. Otherwise, we will just be sucked dry by our own kleptocracy.

Happy New Year. God help us.

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.